One Does Not Simply…Write About Anthropology

My Time as a Graduate Student

Gender & Culture

on August 8, 2013

This past summer I have been working on a direct study on gender and culture. What I have posted is the final write up of what my experiences were with this research. I also have a reading list at the end if you are curious about my resources or would like something to read. 


Gender and Culture: Redefining the Lines

            When I began to research gender for this directed study, the focus was to gain a deeper understanding of how gender and culture intertwined, not specifically the argument of female subordination. The argument of biological determinism in social status as either dominant or subordination has always turned me away from studying gender within an anthropological context. In my studies through the years, I have always acknowledged the opposition of female and male in a symbolic sense in relation to sex and gender. However, I am very glad to report that within the past few months the thought process of gender and culture has changed and has become more accepting of gender as a subject of study.

Thinking of gender studies my mind automatically went to the argument of male domination and female subordination – Sherry Ortner’s argument that female subordination was universal due to biology – “male is to culture as female is to nature” (Ortner 1974). Although I agree that the female body has limitations to what activities that females can or cannot perform physically, I do not agree that is what binds the female sex into that social role of subordination to men. I argue that men have a more or less equal restriction in their biology in reference to social role. Ortner’s argument however, does not seem to take into account American or Western culture and defining sex roles within a society’s own cultural context as well as any given environmental pressures. Although male dominance is seen in many cultures, male dominance is counterbalanced by female authority (Sanday 1981). I argue that one must look beyond biological restrictions and focus on other aspects of the culture such as symbolic, economic, political, and religious spheres.

Biology is only one aspect of defining maleness and femaleness. I became interested in how cultures define male and female symbolically, how female power and authority played a role in political, religious, and economic spheres, and how these themes are seen in various other cultures. What I have come to understand is that to define what is male and what is female is to understand and unravel symbolic meanings. Sexual separation creates two worlds – male and female – in which both worlds consist of a system of meanings and programs of behaviors creating macrocosms of distinct cultures (Sanday 1981). Activities, rituals, and symbolic meanings reflect these worlds. The female world includes the focus on child birth, creation of life, food gathering, and ideology that projects inward on nature and the supernatural (Sanday 1981). In contrast, the male world includes activities of warfare, hunting, taking life, death, ideology that project outward onto nature and the supernatural (Sanday 1981). Females and males have equal powers – females have the power to bring/give life and men have the power to take that life away – life verses death (Sanday 1981). Sanday argues against Ortner in that male dominance is not an inherent quality rather than it is ‘a response to pressures there were present in late history” (Sanday 1981: 3-4).

For each male activity there is a female counterpart that is equally valuable to the overall structure and function of the society. Females contribute to the economy through the production and creation of goods from raw materials that are in turn transformed and used in activities from religious rituals, trade, etc. (Sanday 1981; Weiner 1989: 33-68; Linnekin 1990) In Linnekin’s Sacred Queens and Women of Consequence she states that although there was taboo separation reflected in the division of labor, women in pre-contact Hawaii contributed much more to the function of society through the production of woven tapas that were used as clothing for the chiefs and commoners to the wrapping of idols and offerings in rituals (Linnekin 1990: 44-46). Women made the highest valuables such as the tapas and the feather work that was worn by men in battle or sacred situations (Linnekin 1990:49). It is also evident that women exert political influence as well. For example in pre-contact Hawaii, women would try to marry up through the influence of sexual favors to acquire higher status for their children and security for themselves in old age (Linnekin 1990: 55-56).

From many of my readings, the same pattern emerges – with colonialism comes the breakdown of female power and authority and the rise of male dominance. From Hawaiian, to Native Indian, to African societies, the western influence focuses more on the male activities and their production of goods that reflect the political and economic wealth of the society. Women exist but are not represented or are represented very poorly. With the growth of feminism through the years, this has changed. Women not only as a sex, but as a gender, are being better represented as more equals to the opposing male gender.

Through my experience with gender studies, I have to come to appreciate feminism as well. I defined feminism as raving, angry females who were against men and male roles of society. Even though there are many females who are very much a part of that, I find that feminists are looking for ways to be equal to both sexes and defining gender identity. Our identity is defined by our cultural definition of gender and not just based on biological edifice.

Margaret Mead’s statement that “the personalities of the two sexes are socially produced” (Mead 1963:310), is a statement that I have sided with when it comes to self-identification in gender studies; that gender personalities are socially produced. From the Sambia to Native American to Western societies, gender is culturally constructed. There are many instances which boys are not yet defined as “men” and girls are not defined as “women” until they have successfully passed through rites of passage and been placed into their socially constructed roles as men or women. Gender is our identity and gives us a sense of personhood. Roles that are associated with those genders are culturally constructed within one’s own unique society. Due to gender roles being unique to individual societies, one must not make assumptions that these roles are universals. I feel that many individuals tend to forget that even though there are similar patterns of gender roles in society, especially societies that are economically and politically similar, but that those roles are not found in every single society around the world.

In conclusion, I am not one for universals because there is always an exception to the rule and I find that many use western cultures as the model for comparison due to familiarity. I have also found that individuals do not factor in the similar or ‘universals’ that are being researched are not always necessarily found in western societies; i.e. The United States and Europe. It is also important to factor in the perspective of gender through the lens of the individuals within that culture and through the researcher. The researcher may see the genders as unequal or unbalanced, but within the culture the individuals see a functioning society that has worked specifically for them. Again I argue that the definition of gender roles are unique to each individual culture and must be treated as such.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to research gender and culture these past few months. Not only have I gained a better understanding of gender through my studies, I am able to apply this knowledge to thesis research on Lord of the Rings as well as to future projects on gender in pop culture and gender in the Marine Corps.


Works Cited

Mead, Margaret

1963 Sex and Temperament: in Three Primitive Societies. New York: Morrow Quill



Linnekin, Jocelyn

1990 Sacred Queens and Women of Consequence: Rank, Gender, and Colonialism in the

Hawaiian Islands. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


Sanday, Peggy Reeves.

1981 Female Power and Male Dominace: On the origins of sexual inequality. United

Kingdom: University of Cambridge Press.


Weiner, Annette B.

1989 Why Cloth? Wealth, Gender, and Power in Oceania. In Cloth and Human

Experience. Annette B. Weiner and Jane Schneider, eds. Pp. 33-72. Washington:

Smithsonian Institution Press.

 Reading List

Baal, J. van

1975 Reciprocity and the Position of Women: Anthropological Papers. Netherlands:

Koninklijke Van Gorcum and Company.


Collier, Jane Fishburne and Sylvia Junko Yanagisako, eds.

1987 Gender and Culture: Essays Toward a Unified Analysis. California: Sanford

University Press.


Herdt, Gilbert

2006 The Sambia: Ritual, Sexuality, and Change in Papua New Guinea. Second Edition.

California: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.


MacCormack, Carol and Marilyn Strathern, eds.

1980 Nature, Culture, and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Mead, Margaret

1963 Sex and Temperament: in Three Primitive Societies. New York: Morrow Quill



Linnekin, Jocelyn

1990 Sacred Queens and Women of Consequence: Rank, Gender, and Colonialism in the

Hawaiian Islands. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


Lowie, Robert H.

1961 The Position of Women. In Primitive Society. New York: Liveright Publishing



Ortner, Sherry B. and Harriet Whitehead

1981 Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexuality. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press.


Reiter, Rayna R., ed.

1975 Toward an Anthropology of Women. New York: Monthly Review Press.


Rosaldo, Michelle Zimbalist and Louise Lamphere, eds.

1974 Woman, Culture, and Society. California: Sanford University Press.


Sanday, Peggy Reeves

1981 Female Power and Male Dominace: On the origins of sexual inequality. United

Kingdom: University of Cambridge Press.


Sanday, Peggy Reeves and Ruth Gallagher Goodenough, eds.

1990 Beyond the Second Sex: New Directions in the Anthropology of Gender.

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


Weiner, Annette B and Jane Schneider, eds.

1989 Cloth and Human Experience. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: